Sunday, August 28, 2016


The Rev. Chuck Gaines, active on the UUA Fellowship Committee which had nothing to do with the “fellowship” organizational structure of small groups, but a lot to do with certifying candidates as qualified for acting as ministers.  He was fond of a simile comparing human life to the arc of a flying fish, rising out of the darkness of the water in a brief flight of consciousness before plunging back into the unseen sea.  

An older version of this is about a night bird flying through an open window into a well-lit room (a mead-hall), but then continuing across the room and  out another open window.  But I’m thinking that if the analogy were to be used to describe Unitarian Universalist ministry these days, it might better be framed as the fish’s dive to the depths of the sea or the bird traversing some dark tunnel.  The days of the minister being the gentle virtuous vicar protected by landed gentry or the consoling but unyielding priest governing an Irish parish are gone, even if “The Quiet Man" is streaming on Netflix.

When I found the Unitarians in 1975, the big concern was giving the religious education directors the status of ministers.  Then it was the music directors who asked for recognition as ministers.  As the denomination began to shrink, there were Extension Ministers meant to either found a new group or make a pre-existing one grow, hopefully enough to employ a minister since there weren’t enough pulpits.  UU ministers are notoriously difficult to match to church styles, so occasionally a placement would blow up, leaving hard feelings, so then there were Interim Ministers who were supposed to work that through.  They shouldn’t be confused with Intern Ministers who were students working alongside a veteran.  

Now, with the rise of consciousness about “post-traumatic disorder,” the “After Pastor” has been devised to specifically minister to the traumatized, particularly women who have been traumatized by men, esp. predatory pastors.  Today, with even more ministerial aspirants than there are pulpits, the new concept is “Community Pastors” who find their own funding and define their own constituency.  In the New Testament they are called “Tentmakers” since that was often the way they earned their living.

Parallel with this phenomenon of ever proliferating ministers was the collapse of the seminary, both because of lack of money and because of a levelling policy that attacked the degree system.  Meadville/Lombard had always been prestigious because it used to include the U of Chicago MA, but a traditional MA means passing a foreign language test.  Aspiring ministers found this unjustifiable.  The MA at the U of C means passing a series of rigorous tests about history and thought, actually a filter for the Div School Ph.D. Some UU aspirants couldn’t pass them.  

The U of C in general is notorious for students who get stuck while writing their thesis and the same thing happened at M/L, in part because there were too few faculty (4 men) qualified to judge some of the subjects.  As more late-life and women wished for seminary education, there was pressure for low residency and “mail-order” classes.  Meadville, like others, sold its buildings.  But the bonding that happens in residence on a campus was impossible, which damages
the denominational networking later.  Some UU candidates were taking classes in Christian schools near them.  Though they were liberal, they pressed everything into the Christian mold.

I’ve been trying to go at this problem that is called “clergy misconduct” in a different way, since the previous approaches have all been ineffective.  Mostly they consist of denial, suppression, stone-walling — approaches that work better when they are applied by powerful people.  What becomes clear in this instance is the lack of power all around.  Even the women who come late to ministry, carrying their feminist knives with them and making this the core of their pastoral care, are not powerful enough against a culture that is rethinking sexual relationships of all kinds, from fathers entitled to kill daughters who embarrass them to the daughters of those clergy who have married almost half-a-dozen times.  This is considered reprehensible, but those daughters, loving their fathers, go into the ministry.  No one asks them what they think.  I know of at least two.  I don’t know what the mothers think.

The ground level has to be biological, both the drive to sexual intimacy and the search for the Sacred.  The two interact in hard-to-manage ways, not least because they might not be conscious.  Our denomination and our UU ministry (learned) has focused on the pre-frontal cortex functions as “rational” and “higher” to the point of triggering resistance during the Sixties and Seventies and defiant excess to the other end of the spectrum.  The frame was always either/or.  We had no concept of the power of the unconscious mammal limbic thought — we didn’t even think it was thought, just instincts or drives or libido.  We didn’t know any of this neurological stuff because it hadn’t been recorded yet.  I like it because it escapes the plaguing memes of society dragged in from some other time and place.

The UU pre-frontal cortex turned out to be middle-class British — not even French.  That is, “proper” sexual self-management was that of a middle-class shopkeeper whose goal was order and prosperity.  Contractual monogamy, careful primogeniture, concern for storefront appearances, respect for advertising attractiveness.  This was our model for ministry in a middle-class suburban world where all children went to college.

Put that up against the political welcoming of atypical sexual pairing — same sex, one sex in the gender role of the other, changed gender, cis people in new gender roles, marriage outside contracts, multiple relationships — plus openness to other cultures where there had never been a “middle class” but only a top and bottom — plus drastic shifts of honor and status away from the humanities over to science and technology often paired with denial not just of god but of any “spiritual” dimension (commonly called “atheist”) and there are a lot of contradictions — deeply emotional ones — that need defining and sorting.  We included these “lower” classes because we needed the numbers.  “Growth” was the watchword.  “Profit” was the underlying motive.

The last thing we need are kangaroo courts that twist analysis into accusations, esp. the ones that are technically if civilly libellous.  We’ve been here before when the Unitarians and Congregationalists split and had ended up in secular court to see who got the Sacred Silver, the valuable Communion sets.  And again when the one church and the state split up and the tax money that had supported the one church was now removed, because the church had become multiple denominations in competition over such issues as how much water constitutes a baptism: total immersion or a splash on the head.

The whole matter is complicated by the mosaic regionalism of UU congregations, which leads to a lot of political manipulation because religion is institutions.  To get a national consensus means reconciling California with Massachusetts.  Religion is not sacred because institutions are not sacred.  Institutions are devised and operated by humans who may or may not use their power wisely, but who are compelled to try to preserve the institution if they want to keep their jobs and the status of their roles, which is indicated by money.

Twice now the Berry Street Essay has been used as a point of attack on the institution of the UUA.  No analysis, no practical changes suggested.  The tone is aggrieved college girls crying out over long ago abuse.  I’ve come to the conclusions that there has indeed been sexual misconduct, that there’s a lot of it, it has been accepted (ignored) or treated with amusement or kept secret, that not all the examples provided are legitimate, that there are sexual abuses far beyond the experience of these lady essayists, and that this kind of complaining and accusation is a sign of the rot of the denomination.  It’s not the subject matter that is the problem— clergy who break the rules of accepted Christian middle-class values — but the much larger consciousness of what is Sacred.  

Do these women in their home churches preach to their parishioners against the Hook-up Culture, against the consequences of unwanted children (for the CHILD), against the emotional destruction of shallow and sequential relationships?  Do they tell the men in their pews that if they behave like hounds, there are consequences?  Are they careful about their own relationships?  Do they talk about the interaction of drugs with intimacy — and I mean alcohol as much as pot or ecstasy?  

Paul Fussell proposed that there is a new class emerging, partly because of the Internet.  Highly educated but often broke, these people are redefining “class”, normally defined in part by economics.  An article called “Heterosexual hierarchies: A Commentary on class and sexuality” by Stevi Jackson at the Centre for Women’s Studies, the University of York, UK is listed on Google.  It’s a first-page “teaser” for an article that would cost $36 to buy, but I’m Class X — broke.

I’ll pass the tease on by quoting:

The intersections between class and sexuality have only recently begun to be explored . . . most of the research has come from those focusing on the ways in which LGBT lives and identities are mediated through class.. . understanding patterns of disadvantage and exclusion entails acknowledging the social distribution and effects of privilege . . . the social advantage for sexual life. . . . other significant axes of social division should also be included, especially race and ethnicity.”

I’ve sent an inquiry to Ms. Jackson in York to see if she knows about studies that include religion and that have looked at attempts of people of color or lesser social status (women, immigrant, gay) to rise in the world by adopting high status denominational identities, as well as moving from parishioner to the once-higher status of the pastor, now much deteriorated (underwater) due to pedophilia accusations among priests (once the highest status people), notorious Elmer Gantry antics behind the revival tent, and narrow indignation from offended women of status for whom ordination is not enough.  

No comments: